Headphone amplifier Arcam rHead

The rHead  is a standalone headphone amplifier, and an obvious visual match to the irDAC-II from the same brand . It’s a small, black box with a choice of one XLR and one RCA stereo input. The prevention of mission creep kicks in here, because this is not a two-input headphone amp; the choice of input is selected at the rear of the rHead, using a small toggle switch.Arcam rHead

The prevention of price creep kicks in at that back panel too, as the rHead draws its power from an external 12V, 1.5A power supply. Even the power switch is on the back panel. The front of the rHead is equally severe in its ornamentation. A little green light in the centre of the front panel to denote the juice is flowing. From the front, 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone jacks poke out from a little recess on the left of the black panel, while a silvery volume control is to the right. The volume control has a standby/mute click to the far left of its travel, and the green LED turns orange as a result of engaging mute. Oh, and the Arcam rHead logo is printed on the top panel. That’s it! No tone stack (mission creep, remember), no balanced output (mission and price creep), no inch-thick aluminium front panel (price creep). In fact, there’s practically nothing on the rHead that gets in the way between music and listener from the outside.

This amplifier design is met by the digitally controlled but ultra-linear analogue Texas Instruments PGA2311A resistive ladder array volume control behind that shiny knob. This means that along with no crossover distortion, you have no tracking errors across gain settings. Tracking is an issue many traditional amp designers now turning their attention to the headphone world completely overlook, because a decibel between left and right channels notionally makes no great odds when you are several paces from your loudspeakers, but quickly becomes an insurmountable obstacle when your ears are a few millimetres from the drive units. In fact, the best conventional stereo amps now have superb tracking (the design here is pulled from Arcam’s own A49 flagship), but many lower cost options default to a simple potentiometer. Rather than a potential cause of price creep, this is money spent in the right places.Arcam rHead

The sound of the rHead is almost immediately impressive. The first time you power it up, it might take a few minutes before coming on song, but after that putting it into standby leaves it thermally active, and it sounds great almost the moment you move into the green. In fairness to Arcam, this review was conducted during a wintery cold snap in the UK, and it came out of the box like it had come out of a freezer, so maybe that had an influence on that first half hour or so. In use, the rHead runs warm to the touch…more on Hi-Fi Plus

headphone amplifier Arcam rHead